Quick Reviews: Atomic Habits, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, The Eyre Affair

While totally unrelated, I read these three books this summer and wanted to log that I’ve read them.

Atomic Habits, by James Clear

I borrowed this book from the library but I think I would have been better off buying it so I could take better notes to implement his suggestions.

Clear’s basic premise is that when we try to change habits, we start too big and we don’t change cues in our environment to encourage good habits and discourage bad habits. I’d be curious to try some tiny habit changes and see how they work, but I’ve misplaced my notes and forgotten a lot of the book (which I was distracted while ready), so although this counts toward my books read, it’s kind of a fail in books retained!

★ ★ ★

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

I’d seen this book on various lists and in bookstores, but finally I dove in and listened to the Audible version (which was excellently narrated) earlier this summer.

This book is about the intersection of science (specifically medical research) and the subjects of research (and racial and educational divides). It’s about the titular Henrietta Lacks, whose unique cervical cancer cells created a medical scientific sensation and provided the basis for so much research done over the past 60 years.

I thought Skloot did a good job of detailing a lot of the important research that having these cells has enabled, while acknowledging the disparity between the scientists who do research, the drug companies that create drugs based on the research, and the families whose biological samples provided the basis.

Medical research has a murky and sometimes unsavory history. I’m so appreciative of the ways I benefit from modern medicine, but I know that this came at the cost of many vulnerable people. I can appreciate the difficulties in getting consent for experiments and research, while being horrified at the way some scientists took what they wanted from less educated (and often minority) populations.

Skloot became close to the Lacks family–to Henrietta’s daughter Deborah in particular–over the 10-year process of writing the book, and her careful relationship-building as well as research really shines. Details about Deborah and the process of learning more about Henrietta are woven between more heavy scientific descriptions, which keeps the book moving for a layperson.

A fascinating and eye-opening read.

★ ★ ★ ★

The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde

The plot: in the book’s reality, if someone manages to get their hands on an original manuscript and alter anything in it, there is a cascading effect where all subsequent printed versions of the text change with the manuscript. All changes to the original change every subsequent copy (if someone murders a Dickens character, that character disappears from the text). The only way to remember the pre-change original is just to remember it.

Thursday Next (yes, the character’s name) is a book detective, essentially, and it’s her department’s job to protect original manuscripts. When Acheron Hades (yes, the character’s name) steals manuscripts and threatens great literary characters, only Thursday can stop him….

In general, I should say that I don’t care for retellings or modern authors getting their hands on classic characters and squeezing them into modern stories where they don’t fit well. It feels like they make too many changes to the characters while trying to tell a different story, and I don’t care for it. The characters don’t sparkle the same way, and I feel disappointed that they’ve misunderstood or angry that they failed to understand the character and bring them to life properly. Essentially, I dislike book character forgeries!

While I was cautious, I’d heard this book was fun, so I gave it a try (also, I purchased it for $1 at a library book sale, so the investment wasn’t huge).

So back to this book. Though it’s called The Eyre Affair, Mr. Rochester and Jane do not appear a lot (a feature, to my mind). But nearly every character name in the book was a pun or literary allusion (examples: Millon de Floss; one antagonist’s name is Mr. Schitt), which got a bit grating, and in parts of the book I could feel the author’s effort to be clever in ways that didn’t advance the story.

An interesting conceit of the book is being able to jump into a manuscript and interact with the characters and environment created. However, the characters in the book all 1) know they’re in a book and 2) keep re-living the events of the story over and over the way the author wrote it, despite how they may actually feel upon the 200th time re-living the events. I kept thinking “no, it shouldn’t work that way” (preposterous–I’m not the author, but it felt wrong) and was also horrified for these characters that they are trapped in endless loops that they know about yet can do nothing to change.

Another frustration was that most of the book was about Thursday’s mundane life and the parallel-universe the book is set in. Fforde spent more time detailing how the UK was still involved in the Crimean War than time jumping into books. The first two-thirds it’s Martin Chuzzlewit that’s in danger, but as it’s difficult to find something that rhymes with Chuzzlewit, Eyre had to do instead.

This was a solid “meh” for me. Overall I thought it was trying too hard to be clever and literary, and much like Charlie Lovett’s The Lost Book of the Grail, which had a similar feel to me, I think I need to stay away from books of this type.

While the conceit is fun (you can jump into books and interact with the characters!), the execution left me a bit cold.

★ ★

Books Read in 2019: Uprooted

In general I’m a sucker for fairytales and fairytale retellings, so I expected to enjoy Uprooted. I first tried borrowing the e-book from the library when we were on our trip, but the waiting list was long so I just waited to check out a paper copy when we got back.

I’m so glad I did. This book sucked me in and didn’t let go until I finished. It’s got great world-building and magic and Polish names and the creepiest Wood.

Agnieszka (ag-NYESH-ka)–I think it’s a Polish name?–is a girl who lives in a village near the Wood, and her best friend Kasia is destined to be taken by the nearby wizard who protects them from the Wood’s evil influence. But of course when the wizard actually chooses a girl, he doesn’t take Kasia (I mean, if he did, Kasia would be the narrator, right?).

“Our dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tall outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man…. “

Agnieszka learns about magic and the larger political forces at play in her small kingdom, all while the Wood looms large, sending its poisonous roots out to corrupt the villages.

I loved the atmosphere and the Wood was creepy and ominous. Everyone who entered it was given up for lost, and if they did emerge, they were changed and corrupted and probably would be killed to stop the spread of the corruption.

Parts of the story were somewhat predictable, but it’s a dark fairytale, so I’m ok with guessing some of the plot since it was well-written with an interesting world.

I especially liked the two types of magic cast by the wizards/witches, and the way they worked together (or didn’t, depending on several factors). Our protagonist was the right person for the challenge, and she was rooted (pun slightly intended) in her land and community to fight the evil.

If you don’t care for fairytales, or if you’re looking for lots of twists that you absolutely don’t see coming, you probably won’t like this book. But if dark fairytales with atmosphere and magic appeal to you, you might like this as much as I did.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Books Read in 2019: the Crazy Rich Asians Trilogy

I’m a little late to the party, as last summer I feel like I saw people reading this series everywhere, but after finishing War and Peace I thought it was time for some book candy.

I listened to Crazy Rich Asians, China Rich Girlfriend, and Rich People Problems while on our England trip and after we got back. They were perfect for an early summer read, as they’re light and entertaining.

The books follow a large cast of colorful characters in a tight-knit society of ultra-rich Asian families as they live their lives of incredible luxury, flying to and fro on private jets, going on million-dollar shopping sprees, and eating delicious-sounding food. There are a lot of descriptions of the food, so I advise against reading while hungry.

The characters are entertaining, and Kwan does a great job of detailing incredible luxury while reminding us that these characters are still human, and while a multi-billionaire might be able to buy their way out of many problems, there are things that money cannot solve. When everyone you socialize with is a billionaire, what sets you apart?

Also hilarious: the ways some of the characters try to economize: one character spending millions on jewelry and art and clips coupons at the grocery store. Another spends a fortune on a weekend getaway but hoards hotel shampoo and soap. Details like these made the characters come alive, and I enjoyed these on Audible.

★ ★ ★

A Murder Is Announced

My long list of 50 classics to read by 2023 includes two Agatha Christie mysteries. My mother and grandmother introduced me to the delights of Christie when I was in middle school (exact age unclear) and I’ve been a fan ever since. I’ve read almost all her Poirot and Miss Marple mysteries, but thought I hadn’t read this one.

I’ve had a hard time locating a copy here, and was delighted when I found this fun retro copy at the beautiful Daunt Books shop in London. What better souvenirs to bring back to the US than British literature?

As I started reading, the story started to feel familiar, and about two thirds of the way through I was pretty sure I remembered who the murderer was… but this was still a fun (re)read.

The mystery opens with an announcement in the small town newspaper announcing a murder that evening at 6:30. Half the village shows up “randomly” at the house in question around that time, curious to see the outcome. Of course, it turns into a very real murder, soon followed by other murders. The local constabulary needs the help of the unassuming-looking Miss Marple to unravel the tangled web.

I don’t think this is Christie’s finest, but it was still an entertaining read, full of details of village life and the cleverness of the underrated Miss Marple.

★ ★ ★

Books Read: War & Peace

Well, I’ve done it. I finally (five and a half months later) finished Tolstoy’s epic tale.

I’ve discovered that while I enjoy Russian literature, I can really only read in small-ish chunks at a time because I find it all a bit exhausting. Everything is so epic! So overblown! So many feeeeelings!

This is a big story taking place during the Napoleonic wars. It bounces between “war” sections in the fighting and “peace” sections in society.

Tolstoy’s war sections focus on soldiers, their feelings at the moment, the larger movements of campaigns, and Tolstoy’s own theories of war and how history (mis)represents them, and a few main characters in particular.

The “peace” sections focus primarily on three families: the Bezukhovs, the Bolkonskys, and the Rostovs, though members of these families all fight in the war as well.

What can I say about this book that has not already been said, and more eloquently? I did really enjoy falling into the story, and the characters were well-drawn and engrossing. It moved more quickly than I anticipated, opening at a party without preamble.

Some war sections were a bit of a slog for me, but overall it’s pretty well paced. It’s just a LOT of book.

Three tips if you decide (which you definitely should!) to read this book:

1. Have a list of characters and their nicknames handy. The version I read had a list at the front, which I copied and had next to me when I read. Everyone has their given name, at least a couple of nicknames, and there are MULTIPLE CHARACTERS NAMED NIKOLAI! So it’s good to have a reference.

2. Settle in. I recommend you start reading in the winter–it just feels more appropriate to the setting (you too can pretend you’re the French army freezing to death as you try to retreat out of Russia in 1812!). Just let yourself sink into this story, into the characters, and hang in there for some intra-story essays on war and how history treats war.

Tolstoy has mostly story and history here, but he definitely blends some essays into this work.

3. Prepare yourself for some French, which in my version, Pevear & Volokhonsky (the translators) translated in the footnotes. The aristocrats speak a lot of French in society, though as the war progresses the amount of French decreases. On the one hand, it’s a little annoying to have to read the footnotes to understand everything, but on the other, it makes it clear when someone is speaking French and when they’re speaking Russian. I don’t know how they would have achieved this if they’d just translated everything into English.

I hope you read this book, and when you do (or if you already have), please come find me and talk about it! It’s a daunting book to pick up because of its length and reputation, but I found it much more readable than I feared. I haven’t read any other versions, obviously, but I recommend this translation by Pevear & Volokhonsky–there was nothing choppy about the style of writing, it all flowed smoothly, which I appreciated. I’ve read other translated works where I’m sure I missed some of the beauty of the language because while the sense was translated, the prose felt stilted. None of that was present here, making it easy to immerse myself in the world of Natasha’s singing, Pierre’s muddled philosophizing, Andrei’s moodiness, Nikolai’s excitement being with his fellow soldiers….

When people say this book is about everything, they aren’t wrong.

★ ★ ★ ★